A French detective never doubted she would catch Jeanette O’Keefe’s killer, writes Karen Kissane.
FRENCH policewoman Captain Cathy Nicol first met Jeanette O’Keefe, the young Melbourne woman who would consume much of the next decade of her life, on January 2, 2001.
Nicol had been having lunch with colleagues from the criminal brigade, which is based in the graceful Louis XIV town of Versailles, when the call came. Two young boys had found a body in a sleeping bag in a car park on the dingy western outskirts of Paris.
Nicol was 25 and had been in the homicide brigade only six months. This was not her first murder case, but it would become her passion. The victim, so badly beaten she was unrecognisable, was a young woman, like herself.
Jeanette, 28, was the woman in the sleeping bag.
Nicol was determined to find this killer: Jeanette was “une innocente”, a nice Australian girl who had been caught like a fly in a web in one of the grim, hostile ghettos that scar the outer rings of the French capital.
“There are different categories of crime,” Nicol tells The Sunday Age through an interpreter. “There are gangs who do revenge killings; there are drug killings; there is alcohol and violence. But Jeanette was a completely innocent victim. She was the true victim, the poor girl who this never should have happened to.”
Her whole squad, she says, was touched by the case they came to call “L’affaire O’Keefe”.
Their years of perseverance paid off. On Friday, 11 years and six days after Jeanette was beaten and strangled to death on New Year’s Eve 2000, 37-year-old Adriano Araujo da Silva was jailed for 30 years, with a 20-year minimum, for her murder. He had pleaded not guilty and has vowed to appeal.
But for now, there is relief not just for Jeanette’s family — her parents, Kevin and Susan O’Keefe of Ferntree Gully, and her three siblings — but for the detective who was determined to track down her killer.
Nicol and Jeanette lived half a world away from each other, but they had in common things other than their youth. Nicol is small and slight, with piercing green eyes that blaze when she talks about the case, her words rapping out like machine-gun fire.
Jeanette was also small, “five foot nothing”, say her two sisters and brother, and she, too, was a pretty, green-eyed brunette.
They also shared a stubborn streak. Jeanette’s might have inadvertently led her to her death; Nicol’s helped to solve the case, though she scrunches up her face in Gallic distaste at the suggestion she is “stubborn”. “I am tenacious,” she declares.
There is another factor that led to the two women’s paths crossing: chance. A series of small mishaps seem to have led the normally cautious Jeanette into mortal danger on the night she was killed.
Eight years later, it was one small mishap followed by a routine police procedure that saw her killer caught.
Da Silva, a Brazilian-born petty criminal who was raised in Guyana before emigrating to France, told the court Jeanette, whom he met on the night she died, was the love of his life, the woman he saw as the future mother of his children.
Police told a different story. They alleged he had bashed the petite computer programmer around the head 13 times with an iron bar. When she regained consciousness, he strangled her with his hands. When that did not work, he strangled her a second time with an electric cord. Then he threw her body out a window before dragging it clear of his apartment block.
Jeanette was a reserved woman, careful about whom she let into her private circle, “not a person who went to nightclubs”, says her sister Denise. She was musical, writing ballads as a hobby and playing guitar, piano and violin.
She was also savvy, especially about work. Says her brother, Craig: “She went to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers and only earned $25,000 but they put her through a $10,000 course in Oracle [a computer script]. So then she quit and started being a consultant for $75 an hour.”
Jeanette had been travelling alone on a European holiday when she decided to study French in Paris during November and December 2000. She checked out of her hostel on December 31 because she was due to fly to the United States two days later.
The hostel took bookings by the month and staying even one more night would have cost her four weeks’ accommodation. “She didn’t want to spring for a hotel,” Denise says, and intended to stay at the home of a new French friend, Elise, before catching a flight to New York.
The plan was for Jeanette to get to the outer-suburban train station nearest Elise’s house, where Elise would pick her up with a car because she was carrying a large rucksack.
Here came the first mishap. Elise waited at the station for an hour, but Jeanette did not appear. Elise waited several more hours at home but did not hear from Jeanette. She is uncertain, now, whether she might have confused the time she was due to meet her friend. Neither of the women had mobile phones.
Jeanette called another friend, a man named Tony, to ask if she could stay with him. He agreed to meet her on the Champs Elysees but did not turn up as arranged, he later told police. This was Jeanette’s second mishap.
“He was annoyed at her because a few weeks earlier she had pulled out of an outing with him because she was sick,” Denise says. “Tony later told police that [he didn’t want her to stay over] because it meant he would have to sleep on the floor and he had a bad back. So he was deliberately late for the rendezvous.”
He later had a change of heart, but it was too late.
Jeanette, by now tired and stressed, with partygoers filling the centre of Paris, then rang Elise’s home and spoke to her mother. The mother gave her complex directions in French for getting to the train station again.
Police later worked out that Jeanette had made the call from a public phone box only 50 metres from where Tony had finally turned up to meet her.
Here came the third mishap: Elise’s mother did not replace the phone properly in the cradle. If Jeanette had tried to call again, she would not have got through.
A small woman with a large backpack, worried about the cost of a night in a hotel, was stranded in Paris. And here came Jeanette’s fourth and unluckiest mishap: she ran into Adriano da Silva, and for some reason agreed to go back to his apartment with him.
Her family thinks da Silva may have offered to carry her rucksack. Maybe she was lost on the wrong train. Maybe he offered to get her to a phone, speculates Denise. No one knows for sure because da Silva isn’t saying.
Ultimately, however, Denise believes at some point in the evening Jeanette “refused him [sex] and he lost it”.
Da Silva says he met her that night on the Champs Elysees — but he has said many things that he now admits were lies.
This was all unknown to Cathy Nicol when Jeanette’s body was discovered. Her squad’s first task was to identify the victim. It was not until Interpol in Canberra sent police Jeanette’s description that Nicol had a clue.
Nine days after they first knew their beloved Jeanette was missing, the O’Keefe family’s worst fears were realised.
In Paris, police tried to retrace her last hours. They spoke to people at the hostel and set up three lines of inquiry: kidnappers on the books; offenders who had committed crimes on trains; and about 200 single men in the apartments near where Jeanette’s body was found. The men were sent orders telling them to present to police to give a DNA sample. Only 10 men failed to respond. Da Silva, police realised much later, was one of them.
France’s full DNA database was only created in 2005-06, Nicol says, and it was another two years before technology was able to get a useful sample of the flesh found under the fingernails of Jeanette’s right hand. She had scratched her attacker.
It was this evidence that kept hope alive for Nicol. Never did she doubt that the killer would be found: “I knew that one day we would get a match.”
That day turned out to be February 2, 2009. Nicol said she will never forget the call confirming the database had found a match.
“It was incredible,” says Nicol, who had been emailing Jeanette’s mother for years. With tears in her eyes, she recalls: “I was oh, so happy. I have goosebumps just thinking about it.”
Nicol, by then the last remaining member of the original investigation team, shared the interrogation of da Silva, a man who lived on the edge of society.
He had been born to a white Brazilian mother who fostered him out as a toddler before he was retrieved by his black Brazilian father, who took him to French Guyana to grow up with his step-family. He had identity issues, a derogatory view of women, problems facing reality, and lacked the capacity to feel both compassion and guilt, a psychologist would later tell the court in Versailles.
He had been caught after he ran a police roadblock because he was unlicensed and uninsured. He later went to police claiming the vehicle had been stolen from him; they didn’t believe it and charged him, taking DNA as part of that process.
During the interrogation he denied ever having met Jeanette and said he didn’t recognise her photo. Told there was DNA evidence linking him to Jeanette’s murder, he said there must be a mistake, before creating an elaborate story about having saved her from two “black” attackers.
When he was told that not only was his skin found under her nails but one of his hairs had been found inside the sleeping bag she was dumped in, he asked to phone his girlfriend. Sitting in the police office opposite Nicol, he told his girlfriend that he had killed a woman with an iron bar — a detail not released publicly.
“We could see the relief when he confessed,” Nicol says. “When somebody wants to get the truth off their shoulders we see a physical change. He just relaxed.”
The team was too tired to celebrate, she says, as they hadn’t slept for 48 hours: “But it was a good tiredness.”
Celebration would have been premature. In April, after three months in jail, da Silva recanted.
In court last week he pleaded not guilty and Jeanette’s brother and sisters sat through a long and salacious tale in which he alleged consensual sex with Jeanette in a variety of ways. He claimed he threw her out when she refused more sex with him, and gave her the sleeping bag to sleep in.
Earlier in the trial, the judge warned him that his refusal to take responsibility would weigh against him. It did; 30 years is France’s maximum sentence.
Nicol was at work when the verdict was delivered. But she arrived later to congratulate Jeanette’s family and friends. They wanted a private photo to commemorate the moment and gathered under an archway in the court complex with uncertain expressions. What is the etiquette for this kind of snapshot?
At the end of the line stood Nicol, shoulders back, wearing the tiniest of smiles, and unshed tears in those fierce green eyes.HOW IT HAPPENED
December 31, 2000, 9pm Jeanette O’Keefe makes a phone call to a friend’s mother from the Champs D’Elysees in Paris, her last known contact
January 1, 2001
Adriano Araujo da Silva got rid of her body from his apartment by throwing it out a window and
dragging it to a spot 120 metres from his home.
Jeanette’s body is found. Police investigate, but leads prove fruitless.
Using new technology, a DNA sample is extracted from material found under Jeanette’s
fi ngernails and is registered with France’s DNA database.
Da Silva runs a police roadblock because he is uninsured and unlicensed. He later goes to
police claiming the vehicle was stolen. They do not believe him and take his DNA. The sample
waits for months to be crosschecked.
February 2, 2009
French policewoman Cathy Nicol receives a call from a magistrate saying the DNA on Jeanette’s
fi le now has a match.
Da Silva is arrested
He phones his girlfriend, in front of police, and confesses to Jeanette’s killing.
He confi rms his confession, saying: “I know I am a criminal.”
He retracts his admissions, saying he was manipulated by police, who told him if he confessed he would receive only eight years’ jail.
January 6, 2012
He is found guilty of murder and sentenced to 30 years’ jail. He says he will appeal his conviction.
First published in The Sunday Age.